It takes between 3 and 7 hours to fly to Costa Rica from most U.S. cities, the origin of most direct and connecting flights. Most international flights still land in San José's Juan Santamaría International Airport (www.fly2sanjose.com; tel. 2437-2626 for 24-hr. airport information; airport code: SJO). Some regional flights, such as to Managua, Nicaragua or Bocas del Toro, Panama, use the smaller Pavas International Airport (airport code SYQ), also known as Tobias Bolaños International Airport, closer to downtown San José. More and more direct international flights are touching down in Liberia's Daniel Oduber International Airport (tel. 2668-1010; airport code: LIR).
Liberia is the gateway to the beaches of the Guanacaste region and the Nicoya Peninsula, and a direct flight here eliminates the need for a separate commuter flight in a small aircraft or roughly 5 hours in a car or bus. If you are planning to spend all, or most, of your vacation time in the Guanacaste region, you'll want to fly in and out of Liberia. However, San José is a much more convenient gateway if you are planning to head to Manuel Antonio, the Central Pacific coast, the Caribbean coast, or the Southern zone.
Numerous airlines fly into Costa Rica. Be warned that the smaller Latin American carriers tend to make several stops (sometimes unscheduled) en route to San José, thus increasing flying time.
Bus service runs regularly from Panama City, Panama, and Managua, Nicaragua. If at all possible, it's worth the splurge for a deluxe or express bus. In terms of travel time and convenience, it's always better to get a direct bus rather than one that stops along the way—and you've got a better chance of getting a working restroom in a direct/express or deluxe bus. Some even have television sets showing movies.
Several bus lines with regular daily departures connect the major capital cities of Central America. Call Transnica (www.transnica.com; tel. 2223-4242), or Tica Bus Company (www.ticabus.com; tel. 2221-0006) for further information. These lines service Costa Rica directly from Managua, with connections to the other principal cities of Central America. Tica Bus also has service between Costa Rica and Panama. None of them will reserve a seat by telephone, and schedules change frequently according to season and demand, so buy your ticket in advance—several days in advance, if you plan to travel on weekends or holidays. From Managua, it’s 11 hours and 450km (279 miles) to San José, and the one-way fare is around $30 to $45. From Panama City, it's a 20-hour, 900km (558-mile) trip. The one-way fare is around $40 to $55.
Whenever you're traveling by bus through Central America, keep a watchful eye on your belongings, especially at rest and border stops, whether they're in an overhead bin or stored below decks in a luggage compartment.
Driving to Costa Rica from North America is no light undertaking, but it can be done. The best reason to drive to Costa Rica is because you have a car you want to keep. Border crossings are always stressful, but especially when you’re driving your own vehicle, for which you are constantly required to produce a lot of paperwork. The El Salvador–Honduras and Nicaragua–Costa Rica borders can be especially arduous. In some countries, including Mexico, you have to buy temporary auto insurance to enter the country. Border fixers are ubiquitous—guys who will swarm your car offering to walk you through the process of crossing the border, for whatever tip you care to pay (maybe $20 for an easy crossing, $50 for one where some guard is being difficult). Many find that it is best to hire one, if only to keep the others at bay, and to walk you through the mystifying process. All in all, driving to Costa Rica is doable and generally safe, though best undertaken by at least two people, including one who speaks Spanish. From the central and eastern United States, the quickest route is through Brownsville, along the Gulf of Mexico, and then on through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua (you can skip El Salvador if you choose, though it has the best highways in the region).
Car Documents: You will need a current driver’s license, a passport, the original title for your vehicle, proof of registration, and possibly proof of insurance to enter this country or others. Your first task upon crossing most borders, the fixers will tell you, is to go to a shop to get a photocopy of all these documents. You can make multiple copies of most documents in advance and bring them with you, but you’ll still need to get a copy of your passport with recent entry stamps after you cross a border.
Central American Auto Insurance: Contact Sanborn's Insurance Company (www.sanbornsinsurance.com; tel. 800/222-0158), which has agents at various border towns in the United States. Sanborn’s has been in this business over 50 years and can supply you with trip insurance for Mexico and Central America as well as driving tips and an itinerary.
Car Safety: Be sure your car is in excellent working order. It's advisable not to drive at night because of the danger of being robbed by bandits, especially in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Find hotels with gated parking, and leave nothing of value in your car. Avoid driving at night. Bring enough cash, in pesos, so you don’t have to go looking for an ATM.
Some 350 cruise ships stop each year in Costa Rica, calling at Limón on the Caribbean coast, and at Puerto Caldera and Puntarenas on the Pacific coast. Many are part of routes that cruise through the Panama Canal.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.